The tale of Joe’s escape with German general

Joe and Lily Collins in later life.
Joe and Lily Collins in later life.

Joe Collins was born and raised in the New Street and Union Street areas of Lurgan as the eldest son of Jimmy and Cissy Collins.

He joined the army at a very young age and served during WW2. He had a very interesting story, and his daughter Mildred who was originally from Lurgan but immigrated to Canada in the 1970s, shares with us her father’s courageous and moving story.

The young married couple in or around 1939.

The young married couple in or around 1939.

My dad was born April 21, 1917 and joined the army when he was 15 - getting his mother to sign his papers (telling her it was something to do with work). He married my mom (Lily Martin) December 25, 1939 on two days leave from the army. December 26 was the honeymoon spent in Belfast with the treat of a day at the “pictures”.

He was captured by the Germans on June 9, 1940 after volunteering to drive a truck back inland to rescue more allied troops.

In prison camp prisoners were forced to make artillery for the German army and while working my dad sabotaged the machine and was sentenced to death in September 1944. He was then moved to Fort Zinna in Torgau, Eastern Germany, a prison camp filled with German military who had turned against Hitler and other allies destined to be executed.

While in this prison camp my dad has documented his association with several different prisoners of interest. One was General Oskar Ritter von Niedermayer who was disillusioned with the war under Hitler, and had joined a cell of other Germans seeking to get rid of him. Another person named in my father’s papers is Robert Bezin who was a French resistance fighter from Rouen, France. Robert Bezin was taken out and beheaded on the guillotine by the Germans. Just before being removed from the cell he passed my Dad a silver filigree bracelet that had belonged to his wife and which he had carried with him.

In 1945 when as allies were closing the Germans fled the prison camps and my dad and General Niedermayer escaped together and hid in the countryside not knowing what would happen if found.

After escaping the camp, Niedermayer told him “Joseph, you must go west and I must travel east” and they separated trying to find safety. My dad was found by an American battalion and after realizing they had found a British POW offered him his choice for a first meal. He chose “potatoes” (he was Irish after all) and they fed him “sweet potatoes” which were the American equivalent.

I have found out from German historical documents that Niedermayer was captured by the Russians, placed in a Russian prison camp and there he died three years later. Returning home my dad gave the bracelet to my mom and there it remained for many years in her jewellery box. About thirty years ago they gave the “bracelet” to me. I also valued it and kept it safe and unworn in my jewellery box.

Approximately eight years ago I decided I would try and find the family of Robert Bezin and return that bracelet to the family. I tried every which way to contact people with the same last name, city officials, newspapers etc but could never get an answer to my searches.

Many times I gave up but then would decide that my dad would have been thrilled if I could have managed this, and so I kept trying. I decided that since I was not having any success from the French end, I would take a chance and contact the Germans, specifically a university professor who put me in touch with a history major. During this summer, an old high school friend of mine and her husband were visiting our city in British Columbia, and she contacted me. She mentioned that one of her sons had married a girl from France, specifically Rouen! I told her the story of my quest and she asked me to record it on paper and she would take it back to Ontario and talk to her daughter-in-law. The result of that conversation was that her daughter-in-law still had relatives in Rouen and they contacted part of the Bezin family - Patrick Bezin who is the grand nephew of Robert. Patrick felt that the bracelet should remain with me or with Robert’s children if found. I am still trying to find those two children but for now, have taken another break. It has been truly amazing how all of this finally came together.